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Zero Dark Thirty

Film Four Stars
There's a lot of baggage and expectation with Zero Dark Thirty, after all it tells the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden from the events of September 11th 2001 through to the night time events of May 2nd 2011 and from all accounts this is the story that gets closest to the actual truth.

That is something that has been backed up by the response from American Politicians who are shouting about the portrayal of torture in the film and have been commenting about the inside information on the film from early on in the production.

Watching Zero Dark Thirty it is hard to remove that baggage from your mind and just experience it, especially when you think you know everything that it has up its sleeve in order to deliver any surprise during the film - you know the ending and you know the main story points to get there. Except you don't, and that's really what the film is about.

Plot.pngZeroDarkThirty.jpgZero Dark Thirty follows the lead CIA agent who is chasing down Osama Bin Laden, trying to find a thread of intelligence to give any idea of where the man is hiding out. Around her the surprisingly small team are concentrating on finding other high priority targets, however she is focussed, some might say obsessed, on finding the head of the organisation. She survives a number of attacks, sees her colleagues transferred and die around her and experiences the war on terrorists up close and very personal.

TheFilm.pngZero Dark Thirty starts on a powerful emotional tone, putting you in the right frame of mind for the rest of the film, reminding you of why this all began and of what the story is really all about. The picture stays dark while we hear multiple phone conversations with voices fading to the fore and back, voices from people within the Twin Towers during those terrible terrorist attacks on September 9th 2001.

Hearing the voices and knowing that these are the last words for some people is very moving and an extremely powerful way to begin the film. The key factor is that it puts the audience into the right frame of mind and it works superbly well.

You do actually feel like you are in a similar mindset with the main character that the story is told through and probably a great number of people who were involved in these events. Hearing the calls is rather upsetting and makes you feel for what the victims and their families as well as giving you that desire to pursue those who perpetrated the attacks and bring them to justice. This is needed for the audience as the scenes which follow are those of torture and interrogation, using techniques that are illegal in most societies and have hotly been debated for their use in American interrogations of terrorist subjects, scenes which could so easily turn you off from the character and from the film itself.

However they are required scenes for various reasons and one of them is to present the balanced view. Something I really admired about Zero Dark Thirty is that it doesn't make moralistic judgements even during these scenes, something that would be very easy to do with a subject matter like this. Instead of presenting the viewpoint that torture is wrong, that the American Government should never have sanctioned it or that it was the necessary evil that provided all the answers, it shows the balance, the reality.

It did provide intelligence, it is against human rights and is terrifying for those involved, and in a key scene later we hear that the intelligence services are struggling to progress forward because they are no longer allowed to carry out interrogations of this type, and far from sounding like the usual defence of people who use these tactics, it's said from the frustration of not being able to carry out their jobs and hunt down terrorists.

I'm surprised that the American Government are so concerned about the portrayal of torture during interrogation, after all we've seen it in other films to date and it hasn't caused the uproar from the politicians that it has here, and it positions it very well in the film, as I said it doesn't feel like a complete condemnation and there is an understanding in the film for the audience.

I think out of the whole film the only place that some judgement is made about others is in the role of the single female CIA officer, Maya played by Jessica Chastain, whose story suggests that she was the only one who cared and ended up fighting the organisation, that she was right where everyone else was wrong. It feels a twee Hollywood script ploy akin to Erin Brockovich but I do wonder if it actually was the reality of the situation.

The result of the torture scenes starts us on the road to finding Osama Bin Laden, piece of intelligence by piece of intelligence and terrorist by terrorist. It can be an eye opener for some to see who difficult the process was and how thread-thin some of the intelligence that was acted upon was. I think this goes to change the understanding of the CIA agents portrayed in the film and with these agents in general, we so often think of them as quite the Hollywood stylised spy and everything in this film goes to readdress that belief.

From here though the film is a little staccato and I didn't feel the flow of the story so well. It seemed as though scenes had been plucked out of a lengthy tome and the chosen scenes didn't always allow the audience to follow from the end of one to the start of another. In a way it felt like a documentary that had been edited to capture the salient points from a story which would just prove too lengthy for a viable film, and actually that doesn't sound far from the truth, nor does that sound half as negative as I thought it would before I began writing it.

Yet I did find this a little more negative than the previous comment suggests. The story leapt in time and across foreign characters and didn't give you a lot of time or coaxing to soak in information, sometimes information that was vital to understand was sped over in real time and with some of the dialogue in the early scenes proving difficult to hear there were a few times where I missed information and connections between foreign characters.

I don't think I missed anything I couldn't catch up with later but I did feel that it affected my enjoyment of the film early on and that the thriller aspects were escaping me a little for the first half. It was late on in the film when the main character revealed that the time-frame we'd just witnessed was something around twelve years - that had escaping me until that point.

Something that didn't help the following of the time frame were the chapter headings, they were clearly there to announce the intent and identify the section of the film we were about to see and yet they changed between identifying times, places and traditional chapter headings which sometimes felt vague and obscure, sometimes relating just to a word or a phrase in the following scenes.

I did really enjoy the fact that the film took so much time to tell us the story behind the one that everyone knew. This is where the power of the film is, not just for the audience but for the political world. I struggle to understand why American Politicians are so against the film and what it is revealing because it is fair, balanced and does present a strong picture of the intelligence services and the people involved, amazingly it carries that fairness and balanced view to all those involved from the interrogators to the terrorists, there are no cardboard two-dimensional villains here.

If I were to find fault with the characters it would be the fact that I didn't feel I connected with any of them to any degree and instead I was there to watch their stories play out. That said this aspect does make the film feel a little more like a documentary than a dramatic thriller, and I think that in itself becomes a strength.

Late on in the film when it does take to the action the film follows a rather unconventional path and I love it for it. You would expect that we'd start to see the training and the ups and downs of getting ready for the raid, perhaps emphasising the difficulties involved and showing that the training fails more often than not, presenting a potentially negative picture before the actual events. Instead Zero Dark Thirty skips all the training and assumes that it has happened and takes us straight to the raid. What this does is move the tension from the training into the actual mission, a tension that could have been sorely missed since we really know how it all ends.

The attack itself is filmed and edited very well, the use of night vision and low light filming gives a great feel to the whole event and the tension is stacked very high throughout, even to the final moments, moments we already know about and yet the tension remains. You feel pulled right into the middle of the attack and even without the usual amount of background to the team to connect you with them emotionally.

Overall.pngZero Dark Thirty is a powerful film that tells an equally powerful and political story and tells it well. You do experience some of the difficulties and pressures that the intelligence community faced in tracking down the man responsible for the organisation who committed some of the worst terrorist attacks and it doesn't feel like a grandstanding of political opinion or of Americanism, there are no gung-ho moments here. While there is the faintest of whiffs of a Hollywood plot line from the lone analyst fighting against the rest of the agency from many accounts that may well have been the case.

The is a great example of intelligent writing and film-making that has produced a superb film which educates and entertains. There are flaws though and it does demand a lot of attention and careful thought, I wonder if perhaps a screening on Blu-ray or DVD in the home might be more conducive for this film to give it the true attention it deserves. One cannot fault the performances from Jessica Chastain and those supporting her, nor can any issue be taken with the balance of the telling of the events for which it does deserve a lot of recognition, something that should be extended to the writer and director Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow.

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